New Faculty Resource Guide

Navigation :-: Faculty Resource Guide > Learning

Theory and Research-based Principles of Learning

The following list presents the basic principles that underlie effective learning. These principles are distilled from research from a variety of disciplines.

1. Prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge is the lens through which we view all new information. If that lens is inaccurate, incomplete, or naive, it can interfere with or distort the integration of incoming information (Clement, 1982; NRC, 2000). Consequently, it is important for us to know and address the misconceptions students hold, and to connect new information to accurate information they already possess.

2. Motivation generates, directs, and sustains learning behavior.








Motivation influences the amount of time and effort students devote to learning and supports their continued engagement when difficulties arise. Motivation may be influenced by a number of factors, such as students' interests, goals, and expectations (Hidi and Renninger, 2004; Bandura, 1989; Carver and Scheier, 1990), students' beliefs about learning (Schommer, 1994, Dweck, 2002), and emotional experiences surrounding the learning context. In addition, students learn when the classroom environment provides a balance between support and challenge (Kuh,, 2005). Finally, knowledge itself can be a powerful motivator - the more students know, the more they want to know.

3. The way students organize knowledge determines how they use it. Organize







Knowledge representations that accurately reflect the concepts, the relationships among them and the contexts of use, enable students to retrieve and apply knowledge both effectively and efficiently. Our knowledge representations in turn shape further learning (diSessa, 1982; Holyoak, 1984; NCR, 2000). When knowledge is organized according to superficial features, when the connections are inaccurate ,or if the representation is a set of disconnected and isolated concepts, students can fail to retrieve or appropriately apply their knowledge. We need to help students learn to organize knowledge the way experts do, around core concepts or big ideas that guide expert thinking about our domain, and we need to identify and correct students' disconnected information and inaccurate links.

4. Meaningful engagement is necessary for deeper learning.








Meaningful engagement, such as posing and answering meaningful questions about concepts, making analogies, or attempting to apply the concepts or theories to solve problems, leads to more elaborate, longer lasting, and stronger representations of the knowledge (Craik and Lockhart, 1972). By forming more connections to related ideas, these activities increase the likelihood that students will be able to retrieve and use the concepts and skills when they are relevant.

5. Mastery requires developing component skills and knowledge, synthesizing, and applying them appropriately.








Many activities that faculty believe require a single skill (for example, writing or problem solving) actually involve a synthesis of many component skills Anderson et al. (1989). To master these complex skills, students must practice and gain proficiency in the discrete component skills (for writing this may involve identifying an argument, enlisting appropriate evidence, organizing paragraphs, etc; for problem solving it may require defining the parameters of the problem, choosing appropriate formulas, etc.). To perform complex tasks, students must also practice and gain proficiency in synthesis, in other words organizing and integrating component skills into a coherent whole. Finally, students must understand the conditions and contexts of application and must practice applying skills and knowledge appropriately in new contexts, otherwise they may have difficulty transferring knowledge and skills learned in one context or another (Singley, 1989).

6. Goal-directed practice and targeted feedback are critical to learning.

Practice feedback







Goal-directed practice involves working toward a specific level of performance and continually monitoring performance relative to clearly define goals. When these goals are explicitly communicated to students, they guide and support students' purposeful practice and help students monitor their progress. In addition, students' practice is more effective when instructors (a) provide feedback that explicitly relates students' performance to the criteria, (b) ensure that the feedback is timely, frequent, and constructive, and (c) provide opportunities for them to incorporate that feedback into further practice. (NRC 2001; Wiggins 1998). Instructor feedback can come via formal (e.g., quizzes, papers, exams) and informal (e.g., classroom activities) assessments.

7. Students must learn to monitor, evaluate and adjust their approaches to learning to become self-directed learners.

Self directed







In other words, students must become conscious of their thinking processes. This is called metacognition (Matlin, 1989; Nelson, 1992). One way to help students develop metacognitive skills is to require them to explicitly monitor, evaluate, and reflect on their own performance, and provide them with feedback on these processes. Another is to model our process for students, by showing them how we approach problems, question our strategies, and monitor our performance. In addition, we can provide a series of explicit prompts or questions that ask students to monitor and evaluate their performance. With sufficient practice students should eventually internalize these processes and use them without the need for external aids.

8. Because students develop holistically, their learning is affected by the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the classroom.









Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and thus all these dimensions interact to impact learning and performance (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). The social and emotional aspects of the classroom climate affect students in ways that can enhance or hinder learning (Ford, 1992). For example, students will be more likely to take intellectual and creative risks if they feel supported and respected. By the same token, when students fear ridicule or persecution, or feel marginalized or stereotyped, they may disengage from classroom participation and learning opportunities, or perform more poorly (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Walton & Cohen, 2007).


  • Anderson, J. R., Conrad, F. G., Corbett, A. T. (1989). Skill acquisition and the LISP tutor. Cognitive Science, 13(4), 467-505.
  • Bandura, A. (1989). Self-regulation of motivation and action through internal standards and goal systems.  In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 19-85). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior.  New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clement, J.J. (1982). Students' preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 50, 66-71.
  • Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
  • DiSessa, A. (1982). Unlearning Aristotelian physics: A study of knowledge-based learning. Cognitive Science, 6, 37-75.
  • Dweck, C.S. (2002). Beliefs that make smart people dumb. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people can be so stupid (pp. 24-41). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Ford, M.E. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Healy, A. F., & Sinclair, G. P. (1996). The long-term retention of training and instruction (pp. 525-564). In E. L. Bjork, & R. A. Bjork (Eds.) Memory. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Hidi, S. & Renninger K.A. (2004). Interest, a motivational variable that combines affective and cognitive functioning. In D. Y. Dai & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition: Integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development (pp. 89-115). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Holyoak, K. J. (1984). Analogical thinking and human intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Vol. 2 (pp. 199-230). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, E.J. & Associates. (2005). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Matlin, M. W. (1989). Cognition. NY, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Janovich.
  • National Research Council (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Nelson, T. A. (1992). Metacognition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Schommer, M. (1994). An emerging conceptualization of epistemological beliefs and their role in learning. In R. Barner & P. Alexander (Eds.), Beliefs about text and instruction with text (pp. 25-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Singley, M. K., & Anderson, J. R. (1989). The Transfer of Cognitive Skill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (5), 797-811.
  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82-96.
  • Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

How People Learn - An Overview

The theories on how people learn have changed dramatically since Skinner and Pavlov first posited their theories. The trend in learning theories have advanced from classical conditioning, in which the learner is no more than a reactive organism, to complex theories, such at Sternburg's Triarchic theory, which involves the interplay between metacognition, social context, and the learner's familiarity with the subject.

The most commonly accepted theories are considered "constructivst" theories. In these theories, the learner is thought to create, or construct, their own understanding of the world. The learner takes in information through the senses, buffers the information in order to limit input to the brain, and places the input into what has become known as "working memory." If an older memory is activated at the same time, the older memory is moved from long-term memory and also placed in working memory. The learner compares the new input to what is known through the old memory. If the two are similar, the learner "re-constructs" their knowledge and places the newly reconstructed information back into long-term memory. If the two are dissimilar, the old memory is returned to storage unaltered and the sensory input is forgotten within seventy-two hours.

What does that mean to us as teachers? In order to have students remember and understand, we must provide educational experiences that trigger old memories and help the learner build their knowledge.

How can we do this?

  1. Use learning activities that will require the student to do more than memorize. Unless attached to an old memory, memorized material remains in working memory and is eliminated.
  2. Activate old memories. This can be done as simply as reminding the student of previous activities ("Remember the last class when we..."), building incrementally on your topic so students must draw on old information, or drawing analogies between new information and everyday experiences.
  3. Create learning activities that help the learner construct their knowledge in a step-by-step manner. For example, provide students with:
    1. problems to solve.
    2. plenty of opportunity to practice and give them feedback while they are practicing.
    3. skeleton outlines of your lecture rather than complete PowerPoint slides.

Further Reading...

Active Learning - An Overview
Active Learning Techniques
Blooms Taxonomy
Case Studies
Cooperative Learning
Problem-based Learning
The Case Study
What is the Value of Writing

Other websites:

Learning & Related Topics